‘From all available evidence, no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came’. James Baldwin’s 1953 essay ‘Stranger in the Village’ is a portrait of European provincialism, meandering from one encounter with white ignorance to another. But contrary to his own assumptions, Baldwin was not the first black American to swap the cosmopolitanism of Paris and New York for the rural purgatory of the Swiss Alps.
Over two decades earlier and about 60 miles west of Baldwin’s backwater, the village of Territet provided the backdrop for an ambitious and little-known film, Borderline. The film’s cast is an impressive roll call of modernism’s luminaries, including the poet Hilda Doolittle (known as H.D.), her lover and patron Annie Winifred Ellerman (known as Bryher) and the singer and actor Paul Robeson, a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Dealing with both racial prejudice and sexual oppression, the film simultaneously complements and contests Baldwin’s narrative of isolation. By placing Borderline and Baldwin together, vital questions of belonging, power and coalition-building emerge. These questions ask us not only to consider what it means to be a ‘stranger’ in a given space but also how such experiences of strangeness might be formative, restorative and potentially empowering.
Released in 1930, Borderline features Robeson and his wife Essie as an estranged married couple, Pete and Adah. The film begins with Adah ending an affair with Thorne, a white man who lives in the village. Thorne’s wife Astrid (H.D.) is jealous of her husband’s affair with Adah, and she summons Pete to the village in the hope of commencing a relationship with him and avenging their respective partners’ infidelities.
This tangled web of envy and desire was perhaps inspired in part by H.D. and Bryher’s own relationship and their ménage à trois with the bisexual director of Borderline, Kenneth MacPherson. MacPherson and Bryher had entered into a marriage of convenience in 1927, and both maintained an open relationship with H.D.. Together the trio founded the POOL Group, a production company dedicated to the promotion and distribution of film as an art form. Hugely influenced by the work of directors Sergei Eisenstein and G.B. Pabst, the POOL Group embraced the avant-garde techniques of Soviet and German cinema rather than Hollywood commercialism. The company’s literary journal, Close Up, became a mouthpiece for innovative film art: contributors included Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Richardson.
Pete’s arrival in the village causes a stir among its ignorant inhabitants, evident most aggressively in an old woman’s repeated racist slurs, and his experiences resonate deeply with Baldwin’s in ‘Stranger in the Village’. Describing how some villagers touched his skin with the expectation his blackness would rub off, Baldwin notes that in their treatment of him there was ‘no suggestion that I was human’. He was ‘a living wonder’ – a spectacle to be consumed. The tone of Baldwin’s essay swerves from bemused to angry to despairing and back. For all their unworldliness – Baldwin’s neighbour had never seen a typewriter before his stay – the bumpkins of Switzerland will never be strangers in the way Baldwin feels he is. ‘They move with an authority which I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have – however unconsciously – inherited’.
Amidst the chaos of its sordid machinations, Borderline introduces a number of discernibly queer characters, most notably Bryher as a butch proprietress of a Weimar-esque café and inn. From the cropped-haired women standing arm-in-arm to the aesthete pianist’s stolen glances at Pete, the café is saturated in the visual codes of illicit sexuality. It is a lively safe haven from the white heteronormativity of the village.
As the film reaches its climax, we see Pete and Adah together in Pete’s bedroom above Bryher’s café. Thorne, jaded by Adah’s rejection, storms through the café and charges upstairs. Sensing trouble, Bryher and the pianist follow him, quick to protect Pete and Adah from the intruder. The resulting stand-off is truly sensational: it marks an exhilarating moment in cinematic history. As Thorne bursts in on Pete and Adah, he is unwittingly caught in a constellation of multidirectional gazes. Stood separately within the confines of the bedroom, Pete, Adah, Bryher and the queer pianist jointly stare at him. For about forty seconds, a straight white male is subject to the devastating looks and smirks of queer and non-white men and women. Beads of sweat gather on his brow and slip down his face, melting away the stability of his own identity.
In this brief interim, Pete and Adah are not strangers in the village. Neither is Bryher, queen of her own queer counterpublic in which the potentiality of a cross-cultural, alternative community is hinted at and made credible. In the café, Thorne is the stranger. Undone by the simultaneous disdain and desire for the black body, whiteness – the most elusive of social categories – is suddenly stripped bare. Instead of being the default position, white masculinity is uncovered as a specific and neurotic mode of being, paranoid to the point of pathological.
After this intense, empowering staring contest between Pete and Thorne, Bryher fends Thorne off, defiantly pushing him down the stairs. Fleeing from the inn, he takes out his murderous anger on his wife, Astrid. In the end, white supremacist patriarchal order is restored: even though it is Thorne who kills Astrid, it is Pete who is ostracised from Territet. Before Pete leaves, Bryher’s character comforts him and acknowledges her own complicity in racist structures: ‘What makes it worse is they think they’re doing the right thing. We’re like that.’ Her shift from ‘they’ to ‘we’ rebuilds any social barrier that had previously been deconstructed. The films ends, the café closes and with it our hopes of a queer utopia.
It is essential to note that the POOL Group’s motives behind creating a film centred on racial tensions must be regarded as suspect. European avant-garde movements in the early twentieth century took place in an atmosphere of violent political and cultural imperialism. In the interwar years the boundaries between modernist art and colonial power were incredibly indistinct. Picasso, Matisse and Man Ray, among other major male artists, plundered the forms of African art in their own work with little real appreciation for the cultures from which they appropriated. This was done partly in the hope of shocking genteel bourgeois sensibilities, ultimately aiming to appear at the cutting edge of modernity. Indeed, the subject matter of Borderline cannot be separated from the trio’s modernist ambitions. In an essay published in Close Up upon the film’s release, H.D. revealed that MacPherson ‘is in no way whatever, concerned personally with the black-white problem’. Rather, ‘as an artist, he sees beauty’.
White fantasies of blackness haunt Borderline. The film reserves most close-up shots for Robeson: the camera’s lingering focus on his facial features fetishizes him for the (white) audience’s visual pleasure. He is also visually associated with the untouched and sublime setting of the Alps. One scene intercuts shots of Pete with footage of a boy playing with a kitten, aligning Pete’s blackness with naivety. Here the conflicted white modernist vision is revealed: an idealised return to some prelapsarian state of innocence, at the expense of Pete’s humanity.
Modernist in form and in plot, Borderline does not transcend the racial context in which it was conceived. It is perhaps hopeless to expect it to. However, the film is useful in the possibilities it hints at, and the coalitions it points towards. The queer atmosphere in the café is transient, but its power is lasting.
In ‘Stranger in the Village’ Baldwin wryly notes that ‘it is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is’. Borderline exposes this process, and invites us to look, laugh and point at the straight white male, a phenomenon in cinema that is as rare as it is precious.